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Years before she laid the foundations for the Catholic school system in the United States, Elizabeth Ann Seton got a scolding from her husband. William Seton, who traveled for business, sent her a letter reprimanding the future founder of the Sisters of Charity.
““You should have told me that you had put this in my bag,” he wrote playfully, referring to a tiny painting of his wife, “because I would have gazed upon it earlier.”
When Elizabeth Ann Bayley and William Magee Seton had married, they commissioned miniature portraits of themselves, and the one of Elizabeth is the one William found as he unpacked his travel bag.
It is the only painting of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton done in her lifetime, and visitors to the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, can view it themselves, in a special exhibit on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the saint’s death.
The exhibit is filled with artifacts that were owned by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or her close family members. Many were handed down through her son William and daughter-in-law Emily.
“We have rosary beads that would have been in Mother Seton’s grandchildren’s hands, a family Bible that includes sacramental records in it of Mother Seton’s grandchildren — just some really cool things that help people connect to her and make her that much more relatable as a human and a saint,” said Rob Judge, executive director of the shrine.
Eventually, the items were donated to the Sisters of Charity of New York, who are lending them to the shrine for the exhibit.
Her original habit
The exhibit also showcases the iconic black bonnet that St. Elizabeth Ann wore as a religious sister, the only one in existence.
After her husband died in 1803, St. Elizabeth Ann eventually settled in Emmitsburg and began the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first Catholic religious community founded in the United States. The style of clothing that she wore as a widow, common to her time, simply became her religious habit.
“The bonnet signifies her religious life,” Judge said, which she took on after “a very full vocation of married life and having five children.”
The bonnet is displayed in a case with a black shawl that St. Elizabeth Ann also wore. “Interestingly it has a very small golden S embroidered on the left side, which makes it super personal to her,” Judge said.
In Emmitsburg, she began St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, planting the seeds of Catholic education in the United States.
Also on display are copies of the original letters St. Elizabeth Ann wrote when she first came to Emmitsburg.
“She wrote in her own hand the original rules the community would follow,” Judge explained. “She talks about praying the Rosary during the day, even dividing it up among her work. She talks about doing devotionals to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These are just really special artifacts that point to her faith and spirituality.”
Visitors can also see her copy of the Introduction to the Devout Life, the spiritual classic by St. Francis de Sales, with her own notes in the margins, and an Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary that she prayed.
The exhibit is mounted on the grounds where the saint herself — the first American-born woman to be canonized — lived. She is buried in the shrine’s basilica.
“One of the things I hope is that in various ways visitors can feel closer to her, they can relate to her,” Judge said. “She was in some ways a very ordinary woman. She had fears and dreams and joys and struggles. She lost two of her children; she lost her husband; she lost her mother when she was 3 years old. So she had a lot of tragedy in her life, but she dealt with that quite frankly by leaning into her faith. She had a tremendous belief that in God’s providence no matter what was thrown her way somehow God had a plan in it for her, that he would see her through.”
The exhibit runs through the end of November.